Last night at Sunset Center the Monterey Symphony launched its new season “Concert Grand” – featuring as its centerpiece in each of its 2017-2018 season concerts a major “blockbuster” piano concerto. When the Monterey Symphony’s new Executive Director, Nicola Samra, came out on stage before the concert to welcome the audience, we can guess that if she had asked for a show of hands from audience members who had at one time or another had taken piano lessons, there would have been a lot of hands in the air (probably considerably more than half the audience).
From 1850 to 1950 in middle-class American homes, most children were given the opportunity to study piano, and at the height of its popularity, from 1890 to 1930, approximately 300,000 pianos were sold each year in the United States. Now young students are more likely to be preoccupied with academic study (it has never been more difficult to gain acceptance to the college of your choice) and sports, in which we have observed the increasing growth of league participation in soccer, tennis, volleyball, and even water polo.
However, although interest in the piano has diminished from its highest levels during the past 150 years, interest still persists and there are approximately sixty piano teachers on the Monterey Peninsula making a living teaching young students the joy of music making. Indeed, observed in the lobby of Sunset Center before, during and after the concert were a significant number of young students who had come to hear one of the great piano concertos and a major staple of the symphonic concert repertoire.
Much has been made of Antonín Dvořák’s years in America from 1892-1895, a time when he had been attracted by the growth of serious classical music here and the opportunities it offered to become acquainted with American music and in the process to extend audiences for his own music. We don’t hear as much about Tchaikovsky’s visit to the United States in May 1891 to conduct several of his works, including the Piano Concerto No. 1, at the gala inaugural concert at the newly constructed Carnegie Hall. Tchaikovsky also was impressed with American orchestras (especially those of Boston, New York and Philadelphia) and its conservatories. Tchaikovsky was astonished to learn that his works were more popular in America than in Europe or Russia.
Well, we another opportunity last night to observe the enduring fame of Tchaikovsky’s great piano concerto in the hands of pianist Orion Weiss, who was returning by popular demand after his exciting performance of the MacDowell D Minor Concerto two years ago. The Monterey Symphony Orchestra conducted by Max Bragado-Darman looked huge on a stage that was so crowded that the acoustical panels at the rear of the stage looked a hundred miles away.
Weiss proved to be an exciting and extroverted pianist in a bold and electrifying performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, whose last movement brought the audience to its feet for a rousing standing ovation. Weiss returned to the stage to give us an encore — a lovely performance of Prokofiev’s Prelude in C Major (“The Harp”), Op. 12, No. 4. The audience loved it. I am sure we will be hearing more from Mr. Weiss in the future.
After intermission, we heard a solid and satisfying performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” Op. 95. No matter how many times you hear this great work, it always manages to exert its magic on us. Maestro Max did us (and the orchestra) proud.